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AIDS now the biggest killer of young women

Male violence against women is a leading cause of AIDS.

The UN has warned that AIDS is now the biggest killer worldwide of women of reproductive age.

One reason is that the majority of women worldwide - some 70 per cent - have at some point been forced to have unprotected sex. Fundamentally, new research shows, it is men's violence against women that is leading to the rise in AIDS. 

A bigger argument for the empowerment of women could scarcely be thought of. Women throughout history have been subject to violence and rape at the hands of men, and now that can lead not only to injury, unwanted pregnancy and psychological trauma, but also to death at an early age.

It is sometimes easy for us to forget this in the West, where we kid ourselves that we're 'equal', but in much of the world, women cannot even control the most basic matters about their own lives such as their reproductive rights, who they have sex with, whom they marry, how they work or whether they can own property.  

In South Africa - one of the most 'macho' nations in the world - HIV infection is three times more common in young women than in young men, partly due to the prevalence of rape in that society. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the biggest risk factors for AIDS are not to be gay, promiscuous or an intravenous drug user but to be a young married woman. Marriage effectively makes a woman a chattel of her husband in many societies, and their subordinate position makes it impossible for women to insist on safe sex.

In the light of this new research, the UN says it will now incorporate action against violence against women into its worldwide programme to conquer HIV.




Another whingeing Pom

Oh, just what we need - another tale of a stupid Brit in France

The DH, bless him, sent me this link yesterday.

It's the tale of another beleagured Englishwoman who came to France, found it wasn't paradise, and left with her tail between her legs. 

I'm feeling a bit of a whingeing Pom myself this week, frankly, as my book, Living in France, is now down to its final sales.

If this woman, who has now landed a book contract detailing her shoddy experiences, had bothered to read it, she wouldn't have made half the mistakes that sent her running for home. 

Those of us who have succeeded in our new lives in France get the serious hump with rich Brits who come over here, swan around complaining about how you can't get custard creams in the shops and then head for home describing France as an appalling third-world country. Really, I can't imagine why anyone lives here, dahlink, what with the lack of culture, lack of healthcare, and natives who don't even speak English.

Oh well, there is nothing to be done, in a world where Jordan and Paris Hilton get to be celebrated just for being stupid tarts. Doubtless the author of this drivel will make far more money from her book than I did from mine, which actually HAS value, and I can continue to spit and snarl.

Rant over. 



The house of the weird

Paula Rego has become one of the few living artists to get a museum in their honour

The Policeman's DaughterThere is a lovely article here on the fabulous Paula Rego.

Lord, it makes me feel old, though. It mentions her first exhibition in 1987 - 22 years ago! - and I think this may be the one that I went to. Or perhaps I became aware of her when she was shortlisted for the Turner. 

At any event, it was a long time ago. 

In the 1980s I was quite bowled over by her pictures, which are very unsettling, taking you into the territory of the Brothers Grimm. I cut out and kept this painting (left) The Policeman's Daughter for many years, which tells me some unknown story about the past. Her painting The Family (below) is equally scary.

Teh FamilyNor has her work eased up over the years - she is one of those splendid artists who know what art is about, though I'm sorry to hear she's 74 now - it would be nice to have her around for another 40 yers. 

Anyway, - read the article, which mentions a new museum of her work in Lisbon - a rare tribute to a living artist.

And check out her paintings on the Saatchi site


A question of sex

In private life it might not matter whether Caster Semenya is male or female, but it matters in international sport.

SemenyaWhen is a girl not a girl?

The controversy surrounding Caster Semenya reached a crescendo this week when she won a race by such a huge margin that suspicions could no longer be contained. 

There are many in the athletics community who feel that Semenya may be transgender. I don't think there's any suggestion that she is deliberately cheating, but perhaps that certain female hormones and characteristics may be lacking. She has a muscular build, a deep voice and has never developed breasts.

The tests she must now undergo are not in order to see if she's a man, but whether she 'qualifies' as a woman.  If she cannot test positive, she can longer compete in women's athletics, as this would put her at too great an advantage - men develop more muscle than women and have a greater oxygen conversion which enables them to run faster.

Gender is such an integral part of who we are that many of us don't stop to think about it - we are simply male or female and that's that. But life is more troublesome for people who stand on the cusp.

Because, scientifically speaking, gender is not a cut-and-dried affair. In the womb we all start out female and masculine characteristics only develop later. We have varying amounts of sex hormones. Women need testosterone. Men need oestrogen. At puberty, some people's hormones fail to kick in and can leave them in no-man's-land. One friend of mine, at 17, turned out not to have a vagina, uterus or ovaries - did this make her not-female?

Just as most of us knew someone at school who was obviously gay, even at a very young age, I wonder if most of us have also encountered someone who is fixedly transgender. 

I went to school with one such person. At birth, his sex couldn't be determined, so he was raised as a boy. However, he failed to develop sexual parts, and the other boys, at around the critical age of 11 or so, began to make his life a misery. It was far too late to 'change' him to being a girl, and as a hermaphrodite he endured years of bullying and insults.

Pretty much the same sort of thing seems to have happened to Semenya. Her interests have always been 'boyish', and she has spent her life being teased and humiliated for her masculine looks, with other competitors even refusing to share the toilets with her. 

I can't imagine that this story will end happily if it found that Semenya is not entirely female according to the distinctions required by world athletics. Not only would she be banned from competing in women's races, her position back in South Africa might be untenable in a culture where there is already terrible prejudice against women who don't follow a traditionally submissive feminine route.

One can only hope, for her sake, that she passes the tests and turns out to be simply a new physical type (much as the muscular appearance of Navratilova startled women's tennis when she first appeared). Because, if not, I don't see how there is a place for her outside of the West, where some of us, at least, are more tolerant of difference.


Sex and the single girl

Is giving up sleeping with tossers really enough fodder for a book?

Hephizbah Anderson decided to become celibate for a year and get paid to write about it.

Nice work if you can get it, say I. Wish I'd thought of it when I was 19 - it would've been dead easy. 

Anderson is clearly what some would think of a free-wheelin' modern gal and what others might term the 'town bike' - pretending to be ashamed of her high tally of partners while secretly bragging about it.

However, it doesn't look to me like she was getting much fulfillment from her endless casual encounters so what's the big deal about giving them up? It's like giving up a hangover.

Few women, it seems to me, get much out of casual sexual encounters with men. Most men are fairly rubbish in bed until you've taught them what you want, and that takes a time or two. A quick shag after three bottles of wine and a pizza with someone whose surname you don't know doesn't really cut much mustard for most of us - sex it may be, good sex it isn't. 

Anderson's attitude to sex before her chastity conversion frankly seems a tad desperate: "At a certain point in certain scenarios, a part of me abdicated and gave in to the inevitable..." This does not strike me as the lookout of a well-adjusted, confident woman - more that of someone who needs to get laid in order to feel good about herself. This is never a wise choice for anyone. Has she never heard of oxytocin? Or counselling, for that matter. She's 30, for God's sake, not a teenager.

Whether this is all worth writing about is a separate issue. Clearly, her sex life is important to her, but I can't see what interest it is to anybody else, unless she feels that she's some sort of paradigm.

Our society is hyper-sexualised, she says. Well, er, no it isn't. It rather depends which circles you move in. Partying with rock guitarists (pony tails and all) then yes, maybe. Bundled up in a field shelter counting the lesser-spotting greenfinch, not so much. I find it rather depressing that she admits her entire wardrobe is designed solely to attract sexual partners, for instance - doesn't she ever DO anything? You know, like WORK?

Anderson seems to me like these narcissists who drink like fish or stick needles in their arms every five minutes and then insist that everyone else is doing it too, or secretly wanting to. Well, no we're not, actually - some of us get through our lives drinking a modest amount, smoking the odd joint when we're teenagers and having sex chiefly with people we love, or at least like and respect, and who like and respect us right back. But I guess there's not a book in that, is there? 

Anyway, read it if you must, but I found myself agreeing more with several of the commentators than with the author.  Get a life, love.


Flint handbags Brown

Caroline Flint, former minister for Europe, is getting her knife into the Prime Minister

Has Caroline Flint's recent photo shoot cost her a Cabinet position?

Grim times ahead for marital relationships

A forecast says that more domestic violence is in the offing, rather throwing a shadow over White Ribbon day.

Women need help to escape violent partners, but men too need help to learn to control their anger.